Preston Bypass

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Britain's first motorway, the Preston Bypass, turned 50 years old on 5 December 2008. Today, it's part of the M6 and M55, just another link in the motorway system joining England to Scotland and connecting the various parts of Lancashire.

The story of how it came to be built, how we ended up with the concept of motorways as we know them, and why Preston was the first, is a fascinating one. Equally interesting is the immediate change that it, and the other very early motorways, had on the country in the years that followed. Nobody knew how drivers would behave on this new road specially designed for speed and ease of movement, and nobody could have predicted its incredible popularity.

So, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the first motorway, here is the story of the Preston Bypass.

Celebrating 50 years of motorways


Preston Bypass todayOn a bright and clear morning in December 1958, a crowd of dignitaries, civil servants, engineers, workmen and journalists gathered at a small podium in a muddy field. After the usual speeches, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan set off at the head of a motorcade to inspect Britain's first motorway.

Today, Mr Macmillan would struggle to recognise the road he opened. Its paved width has more than doubled, with eight thundering lanes of traffic moving at speeds and in numbers that were unimaginable in the fifties. The Bypass itself is no longer an isolated section of road, and instead forms just another part of the long blue-sign slog through Lancashire.

The road bed itself and virtually all the structures over and under it have been reconstructed - in fact, apart from its location, there is little of the original Bypass left to see, and even there, parts of the current route are off the line of the original.

But then it was always meant to be the "guinea-pig motorway", and nobody at the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation thought that they would get it right the first time. It wasn't for lack of trying.

Image of Preston Bypass taken from an original by Margaret Clough, used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike Generic 2.0 licence.